Is this Germaine Greer's #listeningtomen face? Photo: Getty
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Mansplainers anonymous: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s lead essay became a viral sensation because many women recognised the experience of having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. 

Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 144pp, $12.99

A few months ago, I went to record a television show about politics. One of my fellow guests was a male political writer, past the first flush of youth, and for half an hour we gave the somnambulant viewers of daytime telly the benefit of our dubious wisdom. Afterwards, I asked him what he was off to do next. “Oh, lunch with a spad. You know, we talk off the record and they give me stuff for the paper.” He continued in this vein for several minutes, during which my eyebrows crept ever closer to my hairline. Was this guy explaining the concept of the lobby system to me? It appeared that he was. He must have thought I’d won the opportunity to appear on a politics TV show in a raffle.

Thanks to the lead essay in this collection by Rebecca Solnit, I knew that I wasn’t alone in being patronised in this intriguingly gendered way. Men Explain Things to Me begins with the writer in Aspen at the home of an “imposing man who’d made a lot of money”. Hearing that she is an author, the man asks, “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice”, what her books are about. She begins to tell him about her latest work, on Eadweard Muybridge, but he cuts her off: “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” She and her friend try in vain to tell him that it’s her book he’s talking about. But he carries on, “with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. When her friend finally communicates the idea that a woman could have written the book the Very Important Man liked so much, it transpires he has not even read it, just read about it in the New York Review of Books. He turns ashen.

Solnit’s essay became a viral sensation because so many women recognised an experience they had never been able to vocalise before: having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. The subsequent discussion led to the coinage of the word “mansplaining” (although Solnit’s not a fan of it and neither am I: you don’t fight being patronised by patronising others in return. I’ve met at least, ooh, two or three men, maybe four, who were perfectly tolerable human beings).

The internet being what it is, the essay was strip-mined for that one idea and very little attention was paid to where Solnit takes it next. She weaves a global story of women’s voices and their testimony being downgraded or dismissed: the female FBI agent whose warnings about al-Qaeda were ignored; the women who need a male witness to corroborate their rape; the writers and politicians whose anger is read as “shrill” and “hysterical”, who are told to “make me a sandwich” by 17-year-old neckbeards on Reddit. We saw it again when William Hague’s recent attendance at a summit on rape in war zones was deemed a trivial distraction from Proper Foreign Policy, which involves bombs and flags and men firing AK-47s into the air. (The Bosnian war: 50,000 rapes. Eastern Congo: 22 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women report conflict-related sexual violence. Iraq: who knows?) That self-important guy in Aspen is the thin end of a thick wedge.

Solnit was the perfect writer to tackle the subject: her prose style is so clear and cool that surely no one can have caricatured her as a shrieking harpy? (My mouse hand strays to Google to disprove myself.) There are only seven essays in this book, but the subjects range from the metaphors of Virginia Woolf to the sexual harassment suffered by female protesters in the Arab spring; perhaps the most disturbing is a piece mirroring Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s approach to his hotel maids with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries. I finished this book and immediately wanted to buy all the author’s other works. In future, I would like Rebecca Solnit to Explain Things to Me.

Helen Lewis is the deputy editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt